The Unstoppable Amber Ruffin
The Unstoppable Amber Ruffin
By Isabelle Lee
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because being funny is still the super sauce that separates us from the dull.
By Isabelle Lee
Shoot for the moon and you’ll land amongst the stars. At least, that’s what Amber Ruffin did when she auditioned for Saturday Night Live and wound up at Late Night With Seth Meyers, becoming the first Black woman to write for a late-night network talk show. Now, the Nebraska native has her own show, The Amber Ruffin Show. Join Carlos and Amber as they discuss leaving Nebraska, auditioning for SNL and her crazy year! You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
Straight Outta Nebraska
Carlos Watson: Wait, so now, so where did you go after Nebraska? When you left, you didn’t rush out of town? ‘Cause I didn’t hear you say you left at 17. You said 22. Where did you go?
Amber Ruffin: I went to Chicago to become an improviser. It was a bad idea. … It ended up working out. But, yeah, it was quite a roll of the dice that has since paid off a lot.
Watson: Were you nervous? Were you scared? Were you excited? Were you like, “I have to get out,” or were you like, “I don’t know if I should do this”?
Ruffin: Absolutely not. My best friend had to threaten me, and she said, “I’m packing up all your stuff and your stuff is going to Chicago. Now, are you going with it or not?” And she forced me to go. She literally forced me. I did not want to go. I was like, “I’m going to stay up here in Omaha, holed up under some dude, have a small house and a sad life like everyone else. It’s going to be great.”
Watson: Now, why did she think you should go? I think I know, but I want to hear you say it. Why did she think you should go? And why were you hesitating?
Ruffin: I didn’t think big. I still don’t, really. I certainly didn’t think I could move to Chicago and get any kind of acting job. I thought the thought of it was ridiculous. But the lady who runs a theater there said to me that I should move there and that I’d be employed within a year as an actor. And she was right. She was like, “You’ll be a full-time actor. You won’t have to do gig work or anything again.” And she was right.
Watson: Wait, now don’t be modest. What did she see, what did she know about young 22-year-old Amber? ‘Cause that’s a big statement that you’re not going to have to do a gig. … That’s like a real statement.
Ruffin: She realized that I am perfect. No, I’m just kidding. I just didn’t have any shame. I’m very unashamed and I’m not cautious in any way, which, had anything else been my job, I’d be dead. But if you’re on the stage, those are the best three things you could possibly be. And so I do think that that’s what happened.
The Fear + Terror of the SNL Audition
Watson: Now you tried out for Saturday Night Live back in the day. Is that right? What was that like? Were you nervous? Were you excited? Did you think you were going to get it? Because it sounded like there were so many interesting people coming together and trying out at the same time.
Ruffin: It was a neat crop of people. It was amazing. Well, when I auditioned, I one-hundred percent thought I was going to get it. I was unreasonably cocky. I thought I was going to get it before I auditioned. And I thought I was going to get it after I auditioned. You couldn’t have told me any different. When the lady called me to say I didn’t get it, I just thought she must have called the wrong person. I guess I am very cocky. That is true. But to think that is an amazing amount of cockiness, but I had it. I really did. I thought, “Oh, this is happening.”
Watson: And then why do you think you didn’t get it?
Ruffin: Well, I think I didn’t get it because I was not good enough. I don’t know. But those things … and after having worked on a lot of shows at a lot of theaters, you have to have a very specific thing.
I used to work at a theater called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. It was like this big fun theater with loud, blah, blah, blah … and you just needed … You could have the funniest person in the world, but it would not be right. You have to have a person who can succeed in this exact platform. And I do think it’s that.
There is this specific … Nothing’s more than SNL. Either you’re exactly that thing, or the show will probably spit you out. And I do think it’s just a specific type of dude.
Watson: So what is the right platform for you? Cause that’s interesting that you say that. This will seem like a wild stretch, but for example, Bill O’Reilly spent a lot of time in his career bouncing around early on. And when he found Fox News, it was the right fit for both of them and at the right time. Do you think you’ve found the right platform for you? Are you in the right space and the right place, or do you see somewhere else, and you’re like, “Right over there would be perfect for me and I would thrive”?
Ruffin: No, no, no, no. This is it. Also, I’ve said that about literally every job I’ve had, but it is. This one is my favorite. And again, I’ve said that about every last job, but it doesn’t get any better than this. It’s your name, it’s on a real show. You say dinosaur suit and they make a dinosaur suit, you know what I mean? It is very much exactly what I am good at. And that’s what I like, because I love writing sketch. I have become really good at it. It is not as sweaty as it used to be. I can do it in a second. But then if you have your own show, it’s as hard as you make it. You can write five sketches and you can rewrite them … or you can write think pieces, which is way too hard for me to do. But if I want to, and if I want a challenge, I can go ahead and strive for it. And I can write and choreograph a song. Now, I shouldn’t be choreographing anything. But if I like, I can do it.
Playing Through the Pandemic
Watson: So did you pick up any new habits other than eating good during COVID? Did you try anything new? Did you revisit things? Did you turn your life inside out?
Ruffin: No. Did people do that? No. We had to launch The Amber Ruffin Show. So I just wrote. That’s all I did. I wrote and wrote like a madman. We also wrote Some Like It Hot: The Musical, which is going to come to Broadway late in the year.
Watson: Wait, how did The Amber Ruffin Show get … Was it greenlit before COVID or was that a COVID baby?
Ruffin: It was greenlit before COVID and we thought, “We’re doing it.” Yeah. But then we had to pin it. But we didn’t really. We just did it the same way we wanted to, but with no audience, because the timing was exactly when you could go back into the studio again. So we weren’t scared. We just were like, “OK, we’re not going to have an audience. We’re not going to do any sketches where we have to touch other people. Those are the only two rules other than go nuts.”
Watson: Wow. Wait, now I’m going to take you into politics for a second. Did you think Trump was going to win? If I had talked to you in October, who did you think was going to win? Not who you wanted to win, who you thought was going to win.
Ruffin: This is what happened. The day he got elected, we spent the day shooting a sketch about how great it was going to be that he lost. We spent … I don’t know how much it costs. Tens of thousands of dollars shooting a sketch, a very beautiful, expensive sketch about how he was certainly going to lose. And then I came home. I went to sleep. My husband woke me up and said, “I don’t think Hillary is going to win.” I said, “You are mistaken.” And I went back to sleep. That’s how certain I was that he was going to lose. No one is more certain than I am. Was.
Watson: And what about in 2020? Did you think in 2020 he was going to win reelection or not?
Ruffin: No, I didn’t think he was going to. But look, that’s not because I knew any better. It’s because I’m an optimist. I’m always going to think the good thing is going to happen. It doesn’t matter how many bad things happen. Literally, something great’s going to go down.
Watson: You know what? That’s good. That’s good to be sunny-side up. Oh, so what do you think the world is going to look like when we … one of my friends said we’re not going to return to normal. She said, “We’re going to return to new.” What do you think the fall is going to look like?
Ruffin: I think the fall is going to look like … I truly don’t know. I think it’s going to be back to normal, and we will beat this thing into submission, and we will emerge victorious and open-mouth kiss each other in the fall. That’s what’s going to happen, I hope. I do think they’re going to roll out these vaccines, and I think they’re going to get to us before there are like a million new strains. I hope.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee